SMS Emden bombing of Madras - 107 years ago (1914) - remembered,

 On 22 September 2021 107th year had been  completed  since the bombing of Madras by the German warship Emden. On that day in the memorial plaque in the High court building (where the shells from the ship fell), Chennai (Madras) people placed flowers and remembered that  day.  When Madras became a German target on the night of   22 September 1914  the word Emden had  become a part of Tamil vocabulary meaning ''scheming,'' ''cunning'', ''talented'', etc. The unexpected attack  by the German cruiser SMS Emden (often  referred to as the ''Swan of the East'') took place when Madras was in the middle of  festival time;  Mahalaya Ammavasai  (third  day after New Moon) had just gone by and people were as usual busy with their routine work.  As it was a night time lots of them were getting ready to hit the bed. Though the WWI was on and the British Govt. asked the people of Madras city to turn the light off  and observe  black-out at night, a custom during war time when the place was prone to air-raids.    The lights were on in the coastal area and the lighthouse on the High Court building was busy flashing the powerful beam to guide the ships in the  Bay of Bengal and the fishing folks. 

Emden attack on Madras 22-09-1914.

German Cruiser SMS EMDEN.

 The most-feared German warship  of that time  approached quietly the coastal area near the harbor just like a tiger stalking its prey. It was almost  pitch dark  on 22 Sept.  Around 9.30 pm,  armed with 10.5 cm (4.1 in) guns roughly 2 miles away from the coast line  German  cruiser   appeared  from no where  with the star board facing the shore, Using its powerful searchlights  the captain of the ship  fixed the targets in a whiff.  Emden  (named for the town) started firing  shells.  Result:  The shells hit three oil storage tanks (one was empty) of the British-owned Burmah Oil Company and a merchant ship. There was 30 minutes continuous bombing till 10.00 pm.  No retaliation from the British India navy. This short mission having been over, Emden, in a flash, turned back and disappeared into the sea under the cover of  darkness. No trace of it and calm and silence descended on the place in the sea where Emden stood. 


Above image:   The SMS that preceded the light cruiser’s name was the German acronym for “His Majesty’s Ship.” Perhaps a challenge to the British royals and their British army!  Built in 1908 in Danzig on the Baltic Sea SMS EMDEN weighs   n at 3,593 tons, 387 feet long with a beam of 43 feet. The cruiser was armed with 10 10.5cm cannons along with nine 5-pounders, four machine guns, and two torpedo tubes.  steam engines provided 13,500 HP  coal-powered engines  could give a top speed of  24 knots. In the early part of the 20th century coal powered ships were preferred by navy officers because they could provide the needed  speed in the sea. Emden had an auxiliary vessel to carry coal for the engines.  790 tons of coal she could carry  would  gave her a range of 1,850 miles at 20 knots and roughly twice at 12 knots. A part of the   German East Asiatic Squadron, it was  Maximillian von Spee. During the WWI Von Muller and his assistant sailed Emden from Pagan Island to the Bay of Bengal to terrorize the British sips.  You will notice three  smokestacks on Emden. Adding fourth one was  a survival r tactic and  Muller had his crew added a 4th one to make it physically look like a brutish ship.  'Camouflaging her appearance was not only a survival tactic for a commerce raider but also would help lull target vessels into a false sense of security when she approached'.. Of all Germany’s raiders, none had a career as bold as the Emden...........................

In the next few weeks there were newspaper reports and discussions in the social clubs and elsewhere about Madras bombing by the German warship.  The subject was mainly centered around the  notorious and  marauding German cruiser  Emden  often  referred to as the most powerful German  war ship ( commissioned in 190)  armed with 22 guns and weighing 3600 tons with coal-fired engines to run the steam turbines.   It was a careful and meticulously planed attack on the shore of Madras with low casualty.  The attack never caused any suspicion  among the British Navy.  In this case  a few deaths were purely  accidental. Fortunately,  the fire from the petrol storage tank did not spread as the wind blew in the direction toward the sea. 

Shell from Emden landed here. Plaque near Madras High court.

In the aftermath of this bomb attack, the people of Madras panicked and could not swallow the attack on a quiet city. For the British  it was  a great humiliation; the only city in the empire that took the beating from the Germans. Till then the Bay of Bengal was called the British Lake dominated by  a large fleet of British ships.  Indians  started losing trust  in the British military's superiority and soon began getting out of the city en masse suspecting further attack by Germans. India had nothing to do with the war going on among the European countries; unfortunately it was dragged into the war and  large portion  of  war expenses was met with Indian revenue!  

Had SS Emden  decided to get the hell out Madras attack,  she  could have been carried out easily. The German attack was intended to humiliate the English  and to prove their  ship's fire power.  Just a little is known about the Commander of the ship Von Muller  who was nick-named a chivalrous gentleman. Being brave and humane,  his raids never caused casualty. In the next few weeks in the Bay of Bengal and elsewhere his ship had sent countless British and other European ships to the bottom after taking the crew  as
 prisoners  who were never ill-treated by Muller and his men.   He did this feat ingeniously  by passing off as  a British ship by adding a 4th chimney, a fake one, on the ship. In those days British ships possessed  4 chimneys (smokestacks).  Von Muller and his seamen hoodwinked the British ships this way for several weeks. 

Karl von Muller, captain of the

As a  matter of fact prior  to  his mission to Madras on  22 September 1914  Emden was low on coal  supply and had to secure  more before she was rendered adrift.  On the night of 9 September  Von Muller  spotted a  Greek cargo  ship near  Ceylon on her way to Bombay with coal. After some serious deliberation, Muller  convinced the ship captain and  integrated the cargo ship with   6,500 tons of coal into his task force. Indeed, a smart job under a tough situation. 

A gun from EMDEN.

Above image:   On display   in a corner of Hyde Park in Sydney, Australia is  a  gun from SMS Emden  that terrorized the British fleet in the Bay of Bengal  in 1913-1914. The German cruiser was destroyed by the Australian warship HMAS Sydney off Coco Islands on November 11, 1914, within two months of its  sudden  assault on Madras  at night during the First World War (22 Sept. 1914).Out of a crew of 376, 133 were killed and the survivors including Captain Muller were taken prisoner. .........................

Unfortunately his slew of victories came to an end on 9 November 1914 when Emden was hit by an  Australian  war ship  off the Coco Islands.   Nine years later  Von Muller  died in New Brunswick, Germany on 23 March 1923 at the age of 49. In deed, he was a chivalrous gentleman in German navy uniform!!  A brilliant and humane German navy man who  served his native country well by not harming people on war missions.

If Chennai city 107 years ago had escaped from the fury of dreaded  SS Emden, the credit goes to that chivalrous  gentleman  Von Muller who was soft on his war mission to India. His sole intention was to wake up the British navy from its hibernation and to prove the power of German war machines. We Indians are indebted to this  German  gentleman in navy uniform.  Commander Von Muller's name is etched  permanently in the history of Chennai, so is his war ship EMDEN

Book on Cap. Von Muller.